On Returning to the Parish

I’m quickly approaching ninety days since returning to ministry which finds me day to day in the local church. And for that all I can say is I’m grateful. I thought I’d would be good for posterity to share some reflections on this return.

I’m Preaching Without Notes

This has been one of the biggest changes since the last time I was preaching to the same people week in and week out. Folk that know me half-decently know that I’m a wordsmith and that I love crafting just the right turn of phrase. There’s nothing wrong with this. It just turned out that in my first 15 years of preaching, I either fretted about that phrase to the point of doing nothing but reading my manuscript or I would work so hard at memorizing my manuscript that the first hiccup would derail to that there was no chance of return. There’s 2 particular Sunday’s I’d prefer to forget and hope, one day I will.

A three different things clicked for me during me three year journey away from the local church:

  1. I had to learn to be an excellent communicator away from the pulpit… or at least at a time that’s not the sermon. I don’t know what the hang up was about sermons but it was there and it was real. To really communicate with folks I needed to learn to look them in the eye, know when I’m connecting and knowing how and when to change–even mid-stride–so that folks could get what I was trying to convey. Simple, right?
  2. When I did preach during my time in extension ministry, I had a particular outcome in mind–I wanted my listeners to engage in ministry with the nonprofit I represented. If we’re not preaching with an end in mind, then we need to reconsider the whole endeavor. As a friend says, it’s nice to be interesting but it’s transformational to be helpful.
  3. Carey Nieuwhof says that we don’t need to memorize our sermon, we need to understand it. For me that means understanding starting and ending points, transitions, and desired outcomes. Now, I’m not wedded to saying the exact same words on the manuscript on my desk at home and I don’t fret if an illustration doesn’t fall into flow of the sermon.

Where to Spend Energy

One of the great lessons I learned from our CEO while at my appointment to a nonprofit was that I could not control when (or whether) folks would trust me. All I could control was whether or not my actions are trustworthy. A large part of this in my first 90 days is how I spend my time and energy. And I have been spending a large part of my time investing in leaders–both those who are on staff and those in elected office. I’m listening to a lot stories, asking lots of questions and telling my own story, as well. I cannot tell you how important this has been.

Confidence in the Midst of Ambiguity

This is the other lesson I’ve learn and I really cannot tell you how important this is. First, let me be clear about what this is not–I’m not talking about arrogance, neither am I talking about deceiving folks. Confidence that has nothing backing it up, nor one that lacks any sense of a kingdom-minded trajectory soon rings hollow. And to “fake it until you make it” when it comes to vision is vulgar and disingenuous.

Confidence comes from a few different places:

  1. Rootedness in the calling upon your life and vocation.
  2. Complete ability to grasp current context without letting it consume or paralyze you.
  3. A holy confidence in a vision of God’s reign and a steadfast commitment to articulating that vision in your current context.
  4. A sense of a trajectory towards that vision with the wisdom and humility to course-correct to keep the vision of God’s reign before the congregation.

I’m sure none of this is new but I’m grateful for the lessons learned in extension ministry and to share those lessons learned.

There’s a whole other blog to share about finally learning good business and administrative practices. That will come later.

What to Learn, Ignore, and Critique from The Mouse

I gave in. I admit it. Back before J. was born, I swore an oath, made a promise, decided that one of the things that I would never do is be seduced into dragging my family to Disney World. I didn’t want to fall down and worship the idols of consumerism and I didn’t want for my child to learn about the world through mediated experiences.

Cinderella's CastleNonetheless, in the late summer of 2013, we found ourselves in central Florida with nothing to do besides recharge the batteries and reacquaint ourselves with each other. After some research (I had to pick up a family member at the airport), I discovered that we were about an hour from Orlando. So we bought tickets, thinking 1) get it out-of-the-way so that it would get out of our kid’s mind and 2) why not since we were so close. So we went.

What We Learned

Many have written prior about what the church can learn from Disney. From my own experiences here’s my own words.

  • Exquisite Hospitality: in the church, we spend much time and energy considering how we can better welcome people. Many churches do things well but these people steal the show. I read somewhere that one of the principles of hospitality is for every day at Disney to feel like it’s the first day open. That means no trash, no dirt, nothing unpainted, and nothing unkempt. The bathrooms are upgraded and renovated and attractions are always evaluated for the value (see the revamp of Fantasyland and the ditching of Toon Town for something else).
  • Exceeding Expectations: Again, in church, we try to envision what people are looking for when they are coming to church. An excellent example of this is the work the church has done to change how we welcome people as we realize more and more folk have not prior church affiliation or come to church after experiencing some loss. But from signage and the location of bathrooms, to “cast members” who are responsible for generating revenue by taking pictures snapping a picture of your family with your own camera for you and constant tweaking of food options (like Gaston’s healthier food options). But my favorite part was the extensive dialogue my 4 year old had with “Rapunzel” about hair care tricks to keep the tangles away.

What to Critique

Life in the “Happiest Place on Earth” is not to be taken simply at face value. From the tourist’s perspective, when you are in the magic kingdom, you feel miles away from any car. But after looking at a satellite map, you can see there’s a whole lot of cars nearby. What else is hidden, or not so hidden.

  • For the betterment of humanity: Much of the narrative around Walt Disney and his work in Orlando, especially early plans for the work that became EPCOT, is that Disney, in some ways, is trying to make the world a better place. And while their environmental stewardship, respectful workplace, and their famous claim to have never lost a child (as a friend says… its their one non-negotiable), this is not why they exist. They are a for profit corporation who have legal responsibilities to shareholders. Everything they do is in the best interest of the shareholders. Many times those often seem like they at least coincide with what the consumer wants. If there is ever a divergence, make no mistake which The Mouse will choose. As the church, we exist for people. Indeed, the mission statement of my tradition is to “make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world”. We are about people.
  • Princesses & Pirates: I grew up in a time when William’s Doll was winning awards. Then, in 1987, when my sister was born, I remember my family making the observation that everything was yellow and green. Everything from decorations to toys were gender neutral. But things have changed. My child has been inundated with princess paraphernalia and her friends who are boys are fed daily does of dinosaurs, trucks, and pirates. Yes, Rapunzel is now sassy and there’s Doc McStuffin’ but how many thousands of girls (including my own) dress up as a princess and not a doctor or scientist? We can do better.

What to Ignore

This is a hard one. But I do think that the heralds I so proudly proclaimed to ignore the mouse are just as silly and pompous as people who dive whole-hearted, headed, and pocket-book into everything Disney. Ignore the extremes. Storytelling and delight is something we can all do a better job of and Disney is the best. Might as well learn from them.

With my ears on….